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A Rivalry, a Retirement and a Return: Two MMA Greats Clash at Bellator 170

Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen discuss the rivalry between the two fighters that’s nearly 20 years old

Tito Ortiz, Chael Sonnen, MMA

Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen fight one last time at Bellator 170.

Jared Wickerham/Getty, Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty

A score nearly 20 years old will finally get settled on Saturday when MMA stars Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen fight in the main event at Bellator 170

Ortiz and Sonnen are two of MMA’s most notorious names. They’ve created fame through their unique personalities and ability to promote a fight as much as actual in-cage talent, but this weekend it gets very personal – at least for one side.

It’s a crucial match in the careers of both men. Ortiz is finally retiring after nearly 20 years of competition and more than 30 professional fights, while Sonnen is set to return from a more than three-year layoff which came as the result of a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

The history between Ortiz and Sonnen has bubbled to the surface as the clock ticks closer to Bellator 170, which takes place at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and airs on Spike. They’ve circled each other in the sport for the better part of two decades, but never crossed paths inside the confines of a regulated fight.

The first encounter between the pair occurred in 1998 when they went head-to-head in an amateur wrestling match. Sonnen was aware of Ortiz well before then, though, because by that point Ortiz had already made one UFC appearance and was ready to pursue a path in combat sports.

Sonnen had similar plans, but as the younger athlete, was just slightly behind the curve. He won the wrestling match in a mere 44 seconds, defeating Ortiz on his birthday. The embarrassment of that moment has never left Ortiz, and he has no problem admitting he still holds resentment over the loss 19 years later.

“This history goes back to 1998 when he pinned me on my birthday,” Ortiz tells Rolling Stone. “I was heartbroken. I stayed and started running stairs until the end of the night when the coach told me I had to go or they would leave me. I could have quit after I got pinned by Chael. Instead I strapped my shoes on and ran stairs and worked harder. Now this is my repayment for that hard work. I wasn’t able to win that match but it led to better things. Whenever you get knocked down, get back on that horse and go harder.”

Ortiz used the defeat as motivation. Sonnen, however, used it as evidence. Not long after the match Ortiz dove fully into an MMA career and by his seventh pro contest won the UFC Light Heavyweight championship. He went on to defend the gold five consecutive times from 2000-2002, etching a place as one of great fighters of his generation.

Sonnen was never convinced of Ortiz’s greatness, though. He continued to wrestle while Ortiz’s star shined bright in the UFC, but then, in mid-2002, fully commitment to an MMA career of his own. He saw Ortiz getting all the spotlight and wanted the chance to prove he also belonged. But from Sonnen’s perspective, it took far too long to get his big break.

“Tito got a jump start on it and made it all the way to the championship and he never would have gotten to the championship had I been there,” Sonnen says. “I whipped him when we were kids, I could have whipped him the whole time and I’m going to whip him on Saturday. It’s nothing against Tito. When he hears that he thinks it’s some kind of personal commentary, but it’s just a fact. I’m the greatest fighter the world has ever seen; he got crowned the world champion, but I would have beat him and stopped him the same as I did when we were kids.”

As the years passed Ortiz continued to be one of the faces of the UFC. He competed in some of the organization’s biggest fights and became embroiled in notable feuds with the likes of Ken Shamrock and Chuck Liddell. He lost the UFC title in 2003 and was never able to reclaim the crown, but nevertheless would always participate in the biggest bouts available until he finally parted ways with the UFC in 2012.

Tito Ortiz

Sonnen, meanwhile, was active in lesser promotions during Ortiz’s prime. He picked up some quality wins, but still struggled to break through to the highest echelon of the sport. That’s until the UFC absorbed his contract when it purchased the now-defunct WEC organization.

Sonnen got the chance he was looking for in early 2009, and he certainly made the most of it. His highlights included beating the now-current UFC Middleweight champion Michael Bisping, competing in some of the most high-profile bouts in UFC history against Anderson Silva and even jumping up a weight class to fight who many consider to be the sport’s all-time best pound-for-pound athlete in Jon Jones.

Although Sonnen didn’t come out the winner in most of those fights, his verbal skills and promotional talent made him a star. He drew comparisons to Ortiz, but Sonnen insists he was always better. He believes he could have proven it had he been brought into the company earlier, but now he gets his opportunity. In his mind, it’s better late than never.

“He never would have been a marquee guy, he never would have been a world champion and he never would have been in the Hall of Fame had I been there,” Sonnen says. “I would have beat them all. This entire fight is to prove that statement true. I’m either going to win or I’m not, but that’s what this is all about. I’m going to make that walk and find out one way or the other. Could I have beat Tito back then? Can I beat him now? That’s what this means to me. My declaration was that I was the greatest not just of my time, but of his time as well.”

Ortiz has taken exception to Sonnen’s comments, and he intends on retaliating with a victory in his final career fight. Ortiz owns the fact he still hangs on to the memories of losing the wrestling match to Sonnen on his birthday, but ultimately those memories have become one of his greatest sources of motivation for the fight.

Although “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” hasn’t competed since November 2015, he’s been aware for some time that his retirement fight was just around the corner. He was waiting for the right opportunity and opponent to materialize, then the next thing he knew Sonnen had signed with Bellator.

Tito Ortiz

“This being my last fight I was looking for an easier match,” Ortiz says. “Then all of a sudden I’m watching Bellator and Chael Sonnen steps on and says he’s signed with Bellator. He called me out and I took it as a sign. He’s a coward. It put a huge smile on my face because it gave me the opportunity to redeem myself from 19 years ago. This fight means the world to me and it’s my last fight. It’s redemption for the person who beat me on my birthday. This fight is two days before my (42nd) birthday and it’s an early present. This fight is not a competition to me, this fight is not a match to me; this is a fight. I’m going to stop him and try to hurt him.”

Ortiz’s original motivation for the fight was revenge. Since then, however, it has evolved into something much more personal. Sonnen’s attacks on his career accomplishments to comments alleging Ortiz’s financial instability have turned the contest into one that makes his blood boil as much as any other in his career. That’s a bold statement coming from someone who has built a career off rivalries and personal feuds.

“This ranks up there in the top one or two most personal fights of my career,” Ortiz says. “This fight is super, super serious. People don’t understand and think it’s just a game. Shamrock is a guy that tried to disrespect my image. With Chael, he’s trying to disrespect my career and my legacy. He’s made personal attacks to me about my cars being repossessed or me being broke. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am to live on the water, have a fishing boat. All the things I wanted as a kid I have. I’m self-made. Nothing was ever given to me but I’ve worked to make sure I give my children the life I never lived. For Chael to disrespect me like that with all the lies he’s said, I’ve taken it to heart.”

Sonnen is accepting of Ortiz’s disdain, but doesn’t feel anywhere near the same level of animosity toward his opponent as what’s coming back. On top of proving his worth against someone he’s been a spectator of his entire career, Bellator 170 also represents Sonnen’s opportunity to make a big splash in his re-entry into the sport.

It has been more than three years since Sonnen stepped in a cage for a pro bout. Following a November 2013 loss to Rashad Evans at UFC 167, Sonnen flunked multiple drug tests for a bevy of banned substances. It was the second time in his career that Sonnen had been involved in such an issue, and as a result he was handed a two-year suspension.

Many expected Sonnen’s comeback to take place under the UFC banner. Instead, it happened with Bellator. Ortiz might label the fight as a grudge match, but from Sonnen’s perspective, it’s just another day at work.

“I can’t tell if he means this stuff, if he believes this – I have no idea,” Sonnen says. “It is shocking that for a guy with a head that big there are so few ideas inside of it. It’s like a huge warehouse that stores nothing but a little tiny coffee truck in the middle of it. They called and asked if I would fight Tito and I had nothing going on so I said yes. I’m pretending this is a big meaningful thing in my life. It’s not. It’s 15 minutes of fighting or until he gives up.”

Ortiz claims he won’t give up easily, though. Few fighters are afforded the opportunity to leave the sport gracefully and with a win, but this is a rare circumstance. Ortiz has experienced numerous injuries and undergone many surgeries throughout his career, but in his mind it’s all been worth it. He wants the glory of victory one last time, and that pursuit is all that’s consumed him in the lead up to fight night.

“This is the final chapter of my career because it began here with that wrestling match,” Ortiz says. “I have the chance to redeem myself and everything happens for a reason in life. I’m not thinking about anything past this fight. I don’t know what I’m going to do after that or how I’m going to feel after that. All I know is I’m going to get my hand raised after stomping Chael Sonnen.”

Sonnen, of course, is ready to play spoiler. Ortiz might be on the way out of Bellator, but Sonnen is adamant his time is only beginning. They don’t call Sonnen “The Bad Guy” for no reason, and he vowed to live up to his moniker one more time by denying Ortiz his dream exit from the sport.

“He keeps saying he’s retiring like it’s his choice,” Sonnen said. “I’ve got a black heart. I don’t care about the other guy. I don’t care about his sacrifices, his commitments or his dreams. It’s winner take all and those are the only rules I know how to play by. I didn’t get brought to Bellator to fight Tito Ortiz. I got brought to Bellator to replace Tito Ortiz.”

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